Tob Control 12:203-207 doi:10.1136/tc.12.2.203
  • Original articles

From adversary to target market: the ACT-UP boycott of Philip Morris

  1. N Offen,
  2. E A Smith,
  3. R E Malone
  1. University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Naphtali Offen, Box 0612, Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA 94143, USA; 
  • Received 24 December 2002
  • Accepted 6 March 2003


Background: In 1990, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) sparked a year long boycott of Philip Morris’s Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer. The boycott protested the company’s support of Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), a leading opponent of AIDS funding and civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. ACT-UP demanded that Philip Morris sever its ties with Helms and acknowledge its responsibility to the LGBT community and to people with AIDS.

Objective: To assess the impact of the boycott on the LGBT community, the tobacco industry, and the tobacco control movement; and to determine what lessons tobacco control advocates can extract from this case.

Data sources: Internal tobacco industry documents and newspaper archives.

Methods: Search of tobacco industry documents websites using “boycott”, “ACT-UP”, “gay”, and other terms.

Results: Philip Morris used the boycott to its own advantage. It exploited differences within the community and settled the boycott by pledging large donations to combat AIDS. Through corporate philanthropy, Philip Morris gained entrée to the LGBT market without appearing gay friendly. Many LGBT organisations, thirsty for recognition and funding from mainstream corporations, welcomed Philip Morris’s overtures without considering the health hazards of tobacco.

Conclusions: Unless the goal of a boycott is to convince the tobacco industry to abandon tobacco altogether, such actions invite the industry to expand its marketing under the guise of philanthropy. Tobacco control advocates should be clear about goals and acceptable settlement terms before participating in a boycott of a tobacco company.


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